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State v. Elliott

Court of Appeal of Iowa

August 21, 2013

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
MATTHEW JOSEPH ELLIOTT, Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Richard G. Blane II, Judge.

Matthew Elliott appeals his convictions of willful injury causing serious injury and child endangerment causing death following a jury trial.

Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Robert P. Ranschau, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Thomas S. Tauber, Assistant Attorney General, John P. Sarcone, County Attorney, and Nan M. Horvat, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Doyle and Danilson, JJ. Tabor, J. takes no part.


On the morning of January 21, 2008, seven-month-old Alexis Gilbert was rushed to the hospital by ambulance following a 911 call. She was examined by a pediatric emergency room physician. Alexis was unresponsive and had significant head trauma. She died shortly thereafter.

Matthew Elliott was later arrested and charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death in connection with Alexis's death. Following a jury trial, Elliott was convicted of the lesser-included offense of willful injury causing serious injury and child endangerment resulting in death. In December 2011, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed his conviction and remanded for a new trial. See State v. Elliott, 806 N.W.2d 660, 663-75 (Iowa 2011). After a retrial by jury in April 2012, Elliott was again convicted of willful injury causing serious injury and child endangerment resulting in death.

Elliott now appeals. He contends the district court erred in: (1) not allowing into evidence testimony regarding a prior investigation concerning State witnesses in the case; (2) finding his two prior convictions for failing to comply with the sex offender registry requirements were crimes of dishonesty and falsity and therefore admissible under Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 5.609(a)(2); and (3) denying his motion for judgment of acquittal. Upon our review, we affirm.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

In its 2011 opinion reversing Elliott's initial conviction, the Iowa Supreme Court set forth the following background facts, which were again established in Elliott's retrial; we recite those facts here for purposes of judicial economy:

On June 5, 2007, sixteen-year-old Kristina Gilbert gave birth to Alexis Gilbert. Kristina is one of five children born to Jean Christensen. Kristina's brothers and sisters are Alyssa Gilbert, Matthew Gilbert [(hereinafter "Matthew')], Cody Gilbert, and Benjamin (Ben) Christensen. At the time of [the first] trial in January 2009, Matthew was twenty years old, and Ben, the youngest, was eight.

Shortly after Alexis's birth, John Hill and Matthew Elliott [(hereinafter "Elliott")] moved in with Jean, Kristina, Ben, and Alexis at their home in Urbandale. Hill was a friend of the family who had previously lived with Jean, and Elliott was a friend of Hill. Although Jean did not know Elliott, she allowed him to move in because she trusted Hill. Both Elliott and Hill were away without permission from the Fort Des Moines Residential Facility when they started living with Jean and the kids.
In September 2007, Jean, Kristina, Ben, Alexis, and Elliott moved to 513 Eighth Street in West Des Moines. Jean secured the home through the West Des Moines Transitional Housing Program. Although the program stipulated only family members could live in the residence, Jean allowed Elliott to move into the home. Ben split his time living at his father^s house and Jean's house. In early to mid-January 2008, Jean's eldest son, Matthew, also moved into the house. From this point on, Jean, Kristina, Matthew, Alexis, Ben, and Elliott all lived in the home.
Jean made it clear to the family and Elliott that Elliott was to leave the premises when the transitional housing inspector made his monthly inspections. Moreover, Elliott left the premises anytime an authority figure, such as the pediatric nurse, came to the home.
Elliott was unemployed while he resided at Jean's, and it became custom and practice for him to help around the house. In particular, Elliott helped care for Alexis. He performed most aspects of childcare, including feeding and changing Alexis. It was common for Alexis to sleep with Elliott on the living room couch. However, Alexis also slept with other family members from time to time.
On the morning of January 21, an ambulance took Alexis from the house on Eighth Street to the hospital. Emergency room pediatrician Dr. Steven Dawson treated Alexis upon her arrival. Alexis presented completely comatose and had significant swelling on her head, particularly the right side. Dr. Dawson described Alexis's head injury as the worst skull fracture he had ever seen in an infant. He further opined that Alexis's head had been [struck] with or against something flat. Alexis died that morning from her injuries.
Police immediately began an official investigation into the cause of Alexis's death. In her statement to police that morning, Kristina claimed Alexis went to bed with her the night before Alexis's death. She claimed that Alexis was fine when she went to sleep and that she found Alexis in her injured condition when she awoke the next morning. She denied having any knowledge as to how Alexis sustained her injuries.
Kristina told this version of the events to a number of people on the morning of January 21, starting with Dr. Dawson at the hospital. She also relayed this version to Susan McManigal, a Department of Human Services [(DHS)] social worker; West Des Moines police detectives, Thomas Boyd and Paul Castelline; Michelle Mauro of the Polk County Medical Examiner^s Office; and West Des Moines paramedics, Joy Woodward-Drake and David Dhabalt. In her bedroom, Kristina also reenacted her version of the events for Mauro, Detective Castelline, and Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the Polk County Medical Examiner. She explained not only that Alexis had slept with her in bed, but with the help of a doll, she also demonstrated how they had slept.
Kristina's brother, Matthew, told police he went to bed around 2:00 a.m. and that, prior to going to bed, he saw Alexis in the living room with Kristina. He related this story four different times. Specifically, West Des Moines police officer Matthew McCarty testified that Matthew told him he saw Kristina with Alexis at 2:00 a.m. on January 21. Matthew gave the same statement to Mauro, Detective Castelline, and McManigal.
Police also interviewed Kristina's mother, Jean, that morning. Jean's initial statement indicated that before she left the house at 5:15 a.m. she heard baby ...

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